Kubla Khan Themes

The main themes in “Kubla Khan” are the power of the imagination, the coexistence of contraries, and the limits of creativity.

  • The power of the imagination: Coleridge’s poem is both a feat of the imagination and an allegory for the imagination’s dynamic movements.
  • The coexistence of contraries: Coleridge creates tension and mystery by presenting contrary realities together.
  • The limits of creativity: The poem suggests that human creativity can never be as boundless as that of nature itself.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Power of the Imagination

The poem confronts the reader with the unknown and suggests that reality cannot be fully grasped. Coleridge deliberately uses words which evoke the unknown, such as “measureless,” “holy” and “sacred,” to emphasize this theme. The idea here is that mystery lies at the heart of beauty. It is only when one accepts this tenet that one can be truly creative. In a state of uncertainty, one should be led by the power of the imagination. This movement can be seen in the poem itself, which travels from pleasure-dome to violent river and gorge to the images of the wailing woman, the Abyssinian maid, and the poet-prophet. These images are determined by imagination and intuition rather than sequential logic. Further, the poet uses elements of the supernatural to evoke the wildness of the imagination. In Romanticism, the imagination is an extremely powerful force; submitting to imagination rather than just facts enables the creative spirit. In “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge himself uses his imagination to enrich the poem’s universe. Thus, the fictitious River Alph and Mount Abora coexist with the historic figure of Kubla Khan.

In the poem’s universe, there is nothing jarring or odd about the poet’s words creating a “dome in air,” as described in the third stanza. In fact, these images and metaphors are figurative, rather than literal, emphasizing the power of the imagination to circumvent rationality and stir the psyche. The name Alph—derived from Alpha, the first letter of the Greek Alphabet as well as Aleph, the —guides the reader to consider the river as a metaphor for the creative spirit. The creative spirit and the imagination are the alpha, or the primary moving force, of the mind.

The Coexistence of Contraries

One of the most prominent themes of the poem is the coexistence of seemingly opposed concepts like pleasure and violence, nature and artifice, light and dark, and life and death. The poem begins with the lines “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree,” which leads to the assumption that the speaker will describe the pleasure palace. Yet the descriptions veer towards the grounds and ultimately the River Alph and its features. The river is a curious, multi-layered motif, sometimes showing through the gardens in “sinuous rills” and meandering through woods and dales but at other times erupting as a geyser in a violent storm of hailstones. Further, it rushes and roars underground before sinking into a lifeless and sunless sea. The intrusion of words such as “lifeless” in the context of the pleasure-dome shows that pleasure and violence, life and death are concurrent, coexistent realities. The coexistence of contrary elements is not an uncommon conceit in Romantic poetry, as can also be seen in the works of William Wordsworth and William Blake. This union of discordant elements stems from Romanticism’s appreciation of nature and the imagination. Nature is both destructive and creative, and pleasure and violence are necessary features of the creative process. Thus, life must be accepted in all its beauty and harshness.

Other coexisting contraries are civilization and savageness. A resplendent pleasure palace is transformed into the site of a haunting image at the gorge. The poet imagines a woman wailing for her demon-lover. This unsettling image is far from the formulaic descriptions one would associate with a decadent palace, and it draws the reader into a terrifying yet holy place. The spot of the gorge is described as “holy and enchanted,” thus bringing together the sacred and the supernatural, the holy and the magical, the godlike and the demonic. This collapsing of boundaries is further...

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seen in the figure of the poet-prophet who, like the River Alph, is simultaneously a source of wonder and terror. In his terrifying and awe-inspiring power, the poet symbolizes nature, with its contrarian impulses of creation and destruction.

The Limits of Creativity

One of the most interesting questions that arises in the poem is why the poet cannot recall the song of the Abyssinian maid he heard in a dream. Why is this song but a shadow and a fragment in his memory? The existence of this question illustrates the limits of human creativity and imagination. Significantly, the poet does not actually remember the song or recreate the pleasure-dome of Kubla Khan. Nor is he the prophet with the floating hair and flashing eyes. These are all states to which the speaker aspires; they are not his reality. In fact, were the poet able to achieve these feats, he would become someone to love and fear in equal measures, someone who crosses a boundary by partaking in the sacred.

Yet, in the universe of Coleridge and the poem, the sacred is the domain of nature. The River Alph—a metaphor for nature’s unbounded creativity—may be able to contain all the pleasure and violence of the world, but the human mind can inhabit these traits only briefly. Further, the human imagination is too dependent on external inspiration, such as the dream of the song of the Abyssinian maid, to be endlessly creative. The poet wishes that he could

revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

But he knows his wish is incompatible with reality, and therefore he strikes a note of despair. The poet’s acceptance of his limitations implies that even Kubla Khan’s palace is an aspiration rather than a real place. To unify the contrary states of the creative impulse and the limits of creativity, Coleridge introduces the strange image of the poet as a feared prophet, a sorcerer. The poet leaves the reader with the tantalizing question whether such a state is desirable. The ambiguous conclusion suggests the poet himself is ambivalent about the limitations of human creativity. Here, the poet-prophet represents a type of doomed anti-hero common in Romantic poetry, such as Prometheus, who stole the fire of the gods for the mortals and suffered divine consequences for it.